Shawn Atleo relies on no small degree of understatement when he describes the most recent chapter of the relationship between first nations and the rest of Canada as "challenging."
But Mr. Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says people faced with challenges can find opportunities for change. And that's what he says he was doing on Jan. 11 when, over the objections of some native leaders, he and an AFN delegation took part in a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
With a chief on a hunger strike and native protesters taking to the streets, Mr. Atleo came away with a commitment that the Prime Minister would take a more direct hand in first-nations affairs – a promise that could help lift complex negotiations on treaty rights and land claims out of the lower levels of federal bureaucracy where they tend to languish. He also came away with increasing tension inside the AFN and some chiefs mulling the possibility of removing him from office. He found himself sick and exhausted – and took the better part of two weeks off to recuperate.
Now Mr. Atleo is back. And, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said he wants to see movement on the first-nations file – and he wants it fast.
What is job number one, now that you are back at work?
Job one is the work. It's about concrete action. And that's where we have to go.
I just spent some time with the B.C. leadership and the focus in British Columbia is on comprehensive [land] claims. It's been decades trying to get that process changed and get the attention of the Prime Minister. That and the treaties.
We need to see the high-level process which was committed to, that engages the PC [Privy Council] and PMO [Prime Minister's Office]. And we are talking about a three- to four-month time frame on a high level. And that is with the intention of opening the door for implementation on the ground for those treaty nations who would choose to begin that dialogue, as well as reforming that comprehensive claims [process]. If I can reflect on what I hope, what I expect: real change and real commitment in a very short period of time.
You are soon meeting one-on-one with Mr. Harper. Is that going to be your message to him?
Absolutely, it's what Jan. 11 was about. And we are going to continue to press extremely hard to see real movement in these areas.
If you take treaties and comprehensive claims, we then can identify and address issues with the economy, the relationship with development. And we can address even the challenges, in my view, that people in the Idle No More movement are saying: We're going to stand up for the rivers, for the fish, for the environment. Well, absolutely. That's what treaties and comprehensive claims, that's what negotiations, are all about.
Speaking of that Jan. 11 meeting, some chiefs are angry that it was conducted on terms that they say were set by the Prime Minister and not the first nations. Why did you take part and what did you get out of it?
We had unanimity amongst our executive calling for a high-level meeting to engage the government, to get moving on the work. And in the end, it is all about the work. And it's not about choosing which path is the right path. All of these paths, I think, are valid.
We're in the courts. We're in the streets now. But we've been in the streets over the course of my lifetime. We're at the UN level. And when the opportunity presents, we need to think hard about bringing our voices directly to government. So that's what Jan. 11 was about. It was about standing firmly behind the work, standing firmly with the people about the changes that are needed.
What do you make of these threats of a non-confidence vote to replace you that keep popping up here and there?
It's the rich diversity that we've got. Over 50 languages, 633 first nations, [areas with] treaties that go back 400 years to areas like mine where there are no treaties. If you look at Canada, Canada is rich and diverse as well. It's got regional differences and different voices.
The eight points that were presented to the Prime Minister are not new. They are decades old. The AFN has literally hundreds of resolutions over decades that speak to these issues and we have to bring them to the highest levels. So that is my job.
You've got some chiefs complaining about you, rarely is anything you do unanimously endorsed. Are there days when you wonder why you ever wanted this job?
When I look in the eyes of the kids in the villages, I want them to be able to take a decision [to do whatever job calls to them] and know that they don't need to feel compelled to enter politics because of deep injustices and the inability to have the freedom to say, "I want to be a chef and go to school and open a restaurant and be an entrepreneur because that's what I really want to do."
What I feel is necessary is that we need to address these deep injustices. We've got to bridge the gap of difference between first nations and Canadians. And my interest, and what's in my heart, is to support my people in any and every way that I can right now. And that's how I feel about the work.
This interview has been edited and condensed.